The Pernice Brothers, The Decemberists, The New Pornographers

By - Aug 1st, 2003 02:52 pm
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By Jeremy Saperstein

The Pernice Brothers Yours, Mine and Ours Ashmont Records www.pernicebrothers.com

The Decemberists Castaways and Cutouts Kill Rock Stars www.decemberists.com

The New Pornographers Electric Version Matador www.matadorrecords.com

A long time ago, in a galaxy far away (well, suburban Chicago, anyway — which is like another galaxy), I bachelor-roomed in a worn old bungalow with this guy whose behind-his-back nickname was “Mr. Negativity.” Being as we were both single, disaffected twenty-somethings, our weekends usually revolved around thirty-packs of watery domestics and slices of pizza to go, consumed voraciously in front of a silent television. Ah, youth!

We would listen to favored records while we ate and drank and watched the silent moving pictures. I was taking off a record, probably the Beatles, when he slurred, “That’s great stuff, but let’s face it — guitar-based rock is dead.” We were young and single and drunk, so this led to a lengthy and intricate argument, of which I can thankfully remember little but my housemate’s central point.

Time has passed now, though, and I haven’t seen or spoken to said housemate since before Britney Spears came on the scene (or since Tiffany left it, for that matter). And the guitar-based hits just keep coming.

Three records came across my desk this month, which I’d love an opportunity to use as evidence (or a blunt object) against Mr. Negativity if that argument is ever renewed.

The first sneaks into the new release reviews section despite the fact that it was initially released back in summer of 2002 by the ultra-indie Hush label. Happily, it’s being re-released this summer by slightly larger and better-distributed Kill Rock Stars.

If this was a just planet, Castaways and Cutouts by the Decemberists would be the sort of record that VH1 specials are made about — y’know, like “…the story behind the classic release that was the soundtrack to our lives…”

I find myself waking up in the middle of the night with the lines from “Leslie Anne Levine” — easily one of the saddest lyrics I’ve ever heard, twisted up in a charming, accordion-fueled pop tune — going through my head. Lines like “My name is Leslie Anne Levine/My mother birthed me down a dry ravine/My mother birthed me far too soon/Born at nine, dead at noon.”

Equally sad lyrically and utterly pop musically is Yours, Mine and Ours by the Pernice Brothers. Pernice’s previous band, the alt-country Scud Mountain Boys, performed their languid songs onstage while sitting around a kitchen table, as if performances were late-night song-swapping sessions that the audience had stumbled across.

Songs from the Pernice Brothers (and Pernice’s solo releases, for that matter) tend more towards energetic and perfect guitar pop, with Pernice’s angelic vocals and sharp-tongued lyrics (“I hope that this letter finds you crying/It would feel so good to see you cry” from Number Two) rising above impeccable arrangements.

Electric Version by The New Pornographers is the final entry in this triumvirate of exciting new guitar-based releases, a case of saving the best for last. Electric Version is the record playing at the roller-skating rink in an alternate universe where the kids are smart, beautiful and in all ways above average, and where punk-rock became commoditized well before the Nirvana 90s.

Hints of other artist and other eras abound, in the ELO-like backing vocals in “Testament To Youth In Verse,” the Stranglers-evoking electric keyboards in the title track and the Brian Eno-like break in “Miss Teen Wordpower.”

The band is something of an alt-rock supergroup, featuring Carl Newman (Zumpano), Dan Bejar (Destroyer) and Neko Case, and boasts of accompanying Ray Davies on a live performance (the first one ever) of his Kinks chestnut “Starstruck.” Could there be stronger praise?

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